Genzyme: The Price of Success - Pharmaceutical Executive


Genzyme: The Price of Success
Genzyme put patients first, and grew to become a multi-billion-dollar company. But empires don't survive on altruism.

Pharmaceutical Executive

"How do we make sure it doesn't disappear when we disappear?" That's one of the questions that Termeer and the entire Genzyme organization is dedicated to answering on a daily basis, says Elliott Hillback, senior vice president of corporate affairs. Hillback has been with Genzyme since 1990, when Termeer recruited the fellow Baxter alum to head corporate development. Today, he spends the majority of his time perpetuating the company's culture, "so that ten years from now, this will still be as effective an organization," he says.

One of Hillback's main responsibilities is going out to business schools to give recruiting talks. His talks focus on the "importance of culture and how it ties into strategy," he says. One of his resounding messages is that Genzyme thrives on flexibility. "If you want structure," says Hillback, "don't come here. Save yourself the energy."

Hillback is not the speaker many MBA candidates expect when they sign up to hear about why a globally successful, technologically sophisticated biotech company values adaptability: He is a jolly, Santa Claus-looking (sans beard) character who seems more like a high-school basketball coach than a corporate executive. He's round, with white hair, and wears red-plaid shirts and bifocals around his neck.

MBAs also probably don't expect Hillback's method of explaining Genzyme's philosophy: "If you're an anal planner, you say, 'I'm going to California. I'm going to get the AAA TripTik, and I'm going to take these roads, and here's where I'm going to have breakfast, lunch, and dinner.' Or if you're really anal, 'Here's where I am going to go potty.' And then, halfway through the first day, you listen to the radio, and it says there's a huge blizzard in Chicago. And you say, 'Well, my map says go through Chicago. I'm going to keep going.'"

Hillback pauses, and scans the room for some nodding heads amid mostly dumfounded looks from people wondering what this self-described "61 year old with the attention span of the 14 year old" is getting at. He bellows, "Duh! Come on gang! You're not going to Chicago. Go to St. Louis. Go further south. Get to warm weather. Whatever you have to do."

When Hillback, one of the first people I met at Genzyme, tells stories, his points seem obvious. (The company is smart in picking him to lure top talent.) But over the course of my visit, it became less and less apparent what the future holds for Genzyme. Built on the passion—and profits—found in helping long-ignored patient populations, Genzyme has grown into an envied empire. The test going forward, though, will be whether the company can uphold that reputation while maintaining its strategy of putting patients first. To do so, Genzyme must decide if it's going to keep playing by its own rule book, or learn how to play by someone else's.

Genzyme executives who found Theo Epstein's resignation provocative may once again turn to the young baseball executive for a clue: On January 19, 2006, the Boston Red Sox unexpectedly announced that Epstein would rejoin the team as general manager. "Make no mistake," said Epstein's erstwhile mentor Larry Lucchino, in a statement: "Much work lies ahead for all of us, and we fully realize that our future conduct must conform to our sincere aspirations."

You listening, Genzyme?


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